By Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
Basic seamanship is the foundation for a Sailor’s life at sea. Whether it’s line handling, understanding basic navigation, or just knowing your way around the decks of a ship—understanding basic seamanship plays a role in keeping Sailors organized, oriented and SAFE. In part two of our Seamanship Series, we will explore some terms that relate to passing and securing lines on a ship.
The nautical terms we use today are composed of elements from many different languages—Greek, Latin, Norse, Spanish, French, and Dutch, for example. The term belay is of Dutch origin, whose naval history dates back to the 15th century. To belay means to fasten, and in handling lines on a ship, a Sailor belays a line to a cleat, bitt, or any other fixed point, to keep the ship from sailing away. The term comes from the mid-16th century Dutch word beleggen, which means “to cover, overlay, or belay.” The term belay can mean “disregard,” as in, “Belay that last order.”
A cleat is a metal or wood fitting with projecting horns, or arms, upon which a Sailor secures a ship’s lines. It comes from the Middle English word clete, meaning “wedge.” There are several different types of cleats, the traditional one being the horn cleat. Others include a cam cleat—in which one or two spring loaded cams pinch the line as it passes through, for ease of adjustability—and a jam cleat, in which the line is pinched in a v-shaped slot, jamming it against the cleat when it is pulled downward.
A chock is a metal casting through which hawsers—thick ropes or cables use for mooring a ship—and lines are passed. They can be fitted with rollers, making it easier to pass a line through or to prevent damage to the vessel. This is another Middle English term, but its roots come from the old Northern French term çouche, pronounced “koosh-uh,” meaning “block” or “log.”
The term bollard comes from the Old Norse word bolr, meaning “the trunk of the tree.” Old Norse was a North Germanic language that was the language of the Vikings or Norsemen. A bollard is a short metal column that extends upward from a base plate which is affixed to a wharf and used for securing lines. It also applies to the timber posts extending above a wharf that’s used for the same purpose—thus, the connection of the term to its Old Norse origin.
Another nautical term that finds its origins from and Old Norse word is the term bitt. Bitts are cylindrical metal or wooden posts that extend up from a base plate that’s fastened to a dock or deck. It’s used to secure a ship’s lines. The term originates from the Old Norse word biti, which means “beam.” The term’s first use dates back to 1593. Bitts and bollards are similar, but the term bitt is used to describe two bollards that project from the same base plate.
The term padeye comes from the Middle Dutch word pad, meaning “path”, and paden, meaning “to follow a path.” It is a metal eye attached to a deck or bulkhead through which a hook, ring, or line can be passed. A padeye provides ample means of securing and helps to distribute the strain over a wide area. They’re also known as lug pads or hoisting pads.
Like this infographic? Explore our entire series of Nautical Terms and Naval Expressions infographics to learn more about your U.S. Navy’s heritage!